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Being Faithful in Dark Times

The Myrrh Bearing Women, carrying jars of aromatic spices to anoint Jesus’ body, being greeted by the Angel announcing the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection.

 

Tonight I attended the Holy Thursday service at the local Orthodox Church via Zoom.  It was strange witnessing one of the most significant services being held in an almost empty church (due to the mandatory lock down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic).  The Holy Thursday service, also known as the Twelve Gospels, recalls Christ’s betrayal, condemnation, crucifixion, and burial through twelve readings from all four Gospels.  It is the longest service in the Orthodox Church’s liturgical calendar.  After the Holy Thursday service is a time of waiting.

For the faithful women followers of Jesus, the period following Jesus’ crucifixion and death must have been bleak and painful.  It must also have been a time of depression, doubt, and confusion.  One lesson we can learn from the example of the faithful women is the importance of faithfully ministering to the needs of others, including the dead.  It was the custom in those days, as in so many other cultures, to show respect to the departed.  In Mark’s Gospel, chapter 16, we read about this act of faithfulness:

16 Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”  (Mark 16:1-7; NKJV)

The grieving women had woken up in the predawn darkness, bought spices, then headed to the tomb to pay their respect to recently departed beloved Jesus.  They had a problem, the huge stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. This was a topic of conversation among them as they headed towards the tomb of Christ.  We read in verse 3:

And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?”

They did not know the answer, but they went anyway.  When they arrived at the tomb, God had a surprise waiting for them–Jesus had risen from the dead!  Due to their faithfulness, they were the first to hear the Good News of Christ’s resurrection and were given the task of evangelizing the Disciples.  For this reason the Orthodox Church honors the Myrrh Bearing Women on the second Sunday following Easter Sunday (Pascha).  On this Sunday, the Church sings:

You commanded the myrrhbearers to rejoice, O Christ! / By Your Resurrection, You stopped the lamentation of Eve, the first mother! / You commanded them to preach to Your apostles: The Savior is Risen from the tomb! [Kontakion – Tone 2]

There will be dark times in our lives when the road forward is blocked by a huge obstacle.  Through the ages the biggest obstacle for the human race has been Death.  The lock down for the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic can be a time of anxious waiting.  It reminds us of the proximity of death.  Many people are looking forward to life returning to normal when we can forget about death, but for Christians, we look forward to our being sharers in Christ’s resurrection.  Let us follow the example of the Myrrh Bearing Women who were faithful in doing good deeds even in the face of obstacles and uncertainty.  Faithfulness in dark times requires inner strength and hope in something that we do not yet see.  Before the joy of Easter is a time of waiting and hoping, of faithfulness during dark times.

Robert Arakaki

 

 

A Time of Waiting, A Time of Hoping

Christ Resurrecting Lazarus

 

On the Saturday preceding Palm Sunday, the Orthodox Church commemorates Christ bringing Lazarus back from the dead.  This event is a foreshadowing of Christ’s greater victory over Death and Hades.

In 2020, Western Easter falls on a different date.  While the Western churches celebrate Easter, Orthodoxy will be celebrating Palm Sunday.  The COVID19 (coronavirus) pandemic has impacted many of us directly or indirectly.  The pandemic has made us aware that the threat of death is not far away. In this time when the menace of death stares us in the face we need to hold fast to our faith in God.

The story of Lazarus’ falling ill, Jesus’ delay in coming, and Lazarus’ surprising resurrection is given in the Gospel of John 11:1-44.  Lazarus’ two sisters, Martha and Mary, are depicted at the bottom of the icon above.  In the Gospel narrative is an interesting exchange between Martha and Jesus.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha said to Him, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this?”

She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”  (John 11:23-28; NKJV)

Here we see Martha moving from faith in an event to faith in a Person, Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ goal here is to lead Martha (and us) to a personal trust in him.  Here Saint Martha serves as an example of Christian discipleship.

The story of Lazarus teaches us about the need for faith in a time of sickness, suffering, and even death.  The story also teaches us about God’s compassion in our times of suffering and confusion and darkness.  The Orthodox Church sings this hymn on the Saturday of Lazarus:

O Saviour who lovest mankind, Thou hast wept over the dead, in this way showing to all the peoples that, being God, Thou hast become man for our sakes; and, shedding tears by Thine own choice, Thou hast given us proof of Thy heartfelt love. (Lenten Triodion p. 472)

Lazarus’ resurrection is significant as the first of many defeats that Christ would inflict on Hell.  The Orthodox liturgy recounts in a dialogue between Hell and Lazarus:

‘I implore thee, Lazarus,’ said hell, ‘rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone.  It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.’ (Lenten Triodion p. 473)

Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday serve as the prelude to Orthodoxy’s Holy Week.  As we progress through Holy Week, we come closer to the darkness and pain of Christ’s Passion.  As Orthodox Christians we do not rush to the happy ending of Easter Sunday, rather through the Holy Week services we walk with Christ in the last days of his earthly life, then we stand patiently at the foot of the Cross with the Virgin Mary and the Apostle John (John 19:25-27).  When we fall sick or experience deep pain, time seems to come to a standstill.  We find ourselves waiting for God to come through for us.  This waiting for God is a test of our faith in God.  Holy Week is a time for waiting and a time for hoping.  So likewise our life here on earth is a time of waiting and a time of hoping.  We are like Jesus’ friend Lazarus who suffered sickness and death, and we are like Martha who looked forward to the hope of the resurrection.

Robert Arakaki

 

Resource

The Lenten Triodion.  2002.  Translated by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware.  (pp. 472-473)

 

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Paul’s Letter to Philemon and the Book of Sirach

Onesimus and Paul while Paul is writing to Onesimus’s masters, Philemon and Apphia.

One of the shortest books in the New Testament is the Apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon, a Christian who lived in Colosse. Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus who ran away. In the course of time, Onesimus met the Apostle Paul and committed his life to Christ. In the social world that Paul lived in, slaves were considered the property of the owner. So, as much as Paul wanted Onesimus by his side (see verse 13), he was obligated by Roman law to return the runaway slave to his owner. Paul sent the runaway slave—who was probably dreading his master’s wrath—with a letter that would become part of the Bible.

In the letter Paul explained that Onesimus had embraced the Christian Faith just as his master did. This meant that the runaway slave was no longer just property but a fellow brother in Christ. Paul wrote to Philemon:

For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but now much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Verses 15-16; NKJV)

Christ’s lordship had revolutionary implications for social relations in the first century Roman Empire and for many other societies as well. A dynamic of equality was introduced based on Christ’s lordship and Christian charity. This is different from secular equality promoted by modern society today, which is based on the notion of human rights. It also differed from that of the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks who were citizens (members of the polis) prided themselves on their freedom, that is, their ability to engage in rational discourse with fellow citizens and share in the duties of the city. The ancient Greeks looked down on the slaves who had no freedom but lived under compulsion. Paul did not throw his weight around as an Apostle but rather sought to gain Philemon’s voluntary consent. He writes in verse 14:

But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.

The attitude we find here contrasts sharply with the hierarchical society of ancient Greco-Roman society. The Christian Gospel (Good News) proclaimed the kingdom of God in which all Christians were slaves of Jesus Christ and were obligated to follow Christ’s new commandment, that is, to love each other as he loved them (John 15:9-12). The social impact of the Gospel can be seen in early church history. The Orthodox Study Bible notes that according to ancient tradition Philemon was consecrated bishop of Colosse. It also notes that the Onesimus in Paul’s letter may be the same Onesimus mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Ephesians (chapters 1, 2, and 6) who was bishop of Ephesus. See Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Ephesians.

 

Icon of Apostle Onesimus – source

It was from this radically new perspective on human relations that Paul wrote one of the shortest books in the Bible that contains many important lessons for Christians today. Paul’s emphasis on voluntary consent reveals something of God’s character. It cautions us against seeing God working by compulsion. The Reformed doctrine of irresistible grace seems to imply an element of compulsion. A similar outlook can be seen in the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints or effectual calling, which teaches that God makes the elect willing to be saved. The Synod of Dort’s rejection of the idea that divine election could be resisted implies divine compulsion. See “Plucking the TULIP.”

Philemon verse 15 bears a strong resemblance to a passage in the Book (Wisdom) of Sirach (33:32), part of what Protestants consider the Apocrypha. It is quite possible that Paul, a Greek-speaking Jew, was familiar this verse and had this verse in mind when he wrote out verse 15.

If you own a servant, treat him as a brother.
For you will need him as your own soul.
If you treat him badly and he runs away,
Which way will you look for him?

(Wisdom of Sirach 33:32-33; Orthodox Study Bible)

Protestants might prefer the 1611 King James Version:

30 If thou haue a seruant, let him bee vnto thee as thy selfe, because thou hast bought him with a price.

31 If thou haue a seruant, intreate him as a brother: for thou hast neede of him, as of thine owne soule: if thou intreate him euill, and he runne from thee, which way wilt thou goe to seeke him?

Reading Philemon against Book of Sirach helped me to see how the Apocrypha prepared the way for the moral teachings of the New Testament and informed the writings of the Apostles. When I was studying the Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I heard very little if anything about the Apocrypha. This is understandable because Gordon-Conwell being a Reformed seminary followed the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament and gave little attention to the Apocrypha.
The Wisdom of Sirach was part of the Apocrypha or what the Orthodox Church calls the Deuterocanon, meaning “second canon.” The Old Testament quotations in the Greek New Testament point towards the Apostles relying on the Greek Septuagint, not the Hebrew Old Testament. This leads to one major difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism today. Where the Orthodox Church regards the Apocrypha as Scripture, the majority of Protestants do not.

It is important to keep in mind that early Protestant bibles did in fact have the Apocrypha. See for example the 1611 version of the King James Version, the pre-1599 versions of the Geneva Bible favored by the English Puritans, and Luther’s German Bible. In other words, historically all three major Christian traditions—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—recognized the Apocrypha as part of the Bible. It was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that zealous Protestants who wanted to purify the Bible excluded the Apocrypha. Many Protestants and Evangelicals today are unaware that the Bible they hold in their hands is a mutilated text.  See “Geneva Bible and Sola Scriptura.”

I wish I knew about the Apocrypha when I was a Protestant. If I had known about the Apocrypha, I would have had a bigger Old Testament to read from. I would have viewed the Old Testament and the New Testament as two closely related halves with Christ as the Center. The Protestant Bible with its four hundred year gap between the book of Malachi and Matthew’s Gospel gives one the impression that the Old and New Testaments comprised two separate dispensations marked by discontinuity. With the Orthodox Bible one gets a stronger sense of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. In the case of Paul’s letter to Philemon, I realized that what Paul wrote to Philemon was not some radically new teaching but rather a fulfillment of the moral teachings of the Old Testament in Christ. Paul did not apply the biblical teaching like a Jewish rabbi, but as an Apostle of Christ who was keenly aware of how Jesus Christ fulfills the Old Testament and transforms human relations.

Robert Arakaki

 

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